The French fry –– hand-cut, sometimes twice-fried and hopefully well-salted –– has reclaimed its rightful place as a food group. We can thank the ubiquitous gastro-pub for the fry’s comeback, along with the proliferation of higher-quality, fast-food joints and the enduring popularity of the classic steak frites.
In Montreal, this bad-boy spud takes us farther down the junk-food rabbit hole as the anchor of the local specialty called poutine. This dish consists of a pile of fries –– or frites, naturellement –– gone delightfully wrong with the addition of cheese curds and brown gravy.
When my partner and I planned a brief trip recently to visit our nephew, Joseph, a first-year student at Montreal’s McGill University, we put poutine at the top of our must-eat list.
For our initial foray, we visited one of Montreal’s most famous poutine spots –– La Banquise –– a 24-hour diner that has been keeping its fryers going constantly for nearly a half-century.
La Banquise, which is situated in the neighborhood of Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, serves up more than 30 different kinds of poutine. “La Classique” is the base platform for zipped-up versions like “La Reggae” (ground beef, guacamole, diced tomatoes and hot peppers), “La Danse (chicken, onions, bacon and pepper sauce) and “La Kamikaze” (merguez sausage, hot peppers and tabasco).
Similar to the cheesesteak stands in my native Philadelphia, La Banquise is atmospheric, but not a place to go just for the ambiance. It’s a destination for college students and twenty-somethings, multigenerational family groups and tourists, and everyone in between, all rubbing greasy elbows in a downscale dining room with artful grafitti on the walls.
The poutine at La Banquise hit all the right salty-rich notes –– and didn’t lead me to reach for the Pepto. While toppings are a highly personal choice, I can strongly advise against the corn dogs. Stick with more, um, organic choices like the smoked meat, and you’ll be fine.
But I wasn’t done with poutine yet. For a second, seemingly counter-intuitive experience, I went high-end. At Garde-Manger, a dimly lit bistro in Old Montreal, I savored poutine studded with succulent chunks of lobster The latter combo helped chef-owner Chuck Hughes claim Canada’s first victory in Iron Chef America.
It proved a winner for my palate, but I knew my sampling was far from over. With three years to go before my nephew graduates, I’ll be back for more.